This new DVD of First World War battles matches the very high standard achieved by BHTV in their military history series. It covers the fight back after the initial retreats. At this point the WWI campaign on the Western Front was still a war of movement where cavalry were still deployed on horseback and field artillery raced around the battlefield. It is perhaps the best example of British and French troops being deployed to mutual advantage with excellent communications between the commanders and with the respective strengths of commanders being used symbiotically. This is a stirring story, well told by the BHTV team.
NAME: Battles of the Marne & the Aisne
CLASSIFICATION: Video, DVD, reviews
PRESENTER(S): Paul Oldfield, Ed Church, Mike Peters, Tim Saunders, Tom Dormer, Andrew Duff
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword Digital
FORMAT: Dual layer
RUNTIME: 90 minutes
PLAYERS: Linux Workstation, Personal Computer, Mac Computer, DVD Player
SUBJECT: WWI, World War One, First World War, Great War,battles, BEF, German Army, French Army, Western Front, counter attack, end of retreat
DESCRIPTION: This new DVD of First World War battles matches the very high standard achieved by BHTV in their military history series. It covers the fight back after the initial retreats. At this point the WWI campaign on the Western Front was still a war of movement where cavalry were still deployed on horseback and field artillery raced around the battlefield. It is perhaps the best example of British and French troops being deployed to mutual advantage with excellent communications between the commanders and with the respective strengths of commanders being used symbiotically. This is a stirring story, well told by the BHTV team.
The abiding image of WWI is of terrifying trench warfare, filth, blood and the destruction of a generation of young men on both sides. After the battles of the Marne and the Aine, this is reasonably accurate until the tank began to break the stalemate of the trenches. Initially, the German Schlieffen Plan had appeared to work and the Germans were contemptuous of the little British Army. German troops swung through neutral Belgium and northern France, approaching Paris and the expected swift victory before the Russians could mount a significant attack on the second front. However, the wheel to the south by von Kluck’s and von Bulow’s armies had exposed their flank to the east of Paris and they were vulnerable to a counter attack. The sweep through France had also failed to match the expected timetable. The small British Army had proved much tougher than the Germans had anticipated and slowed down the German advance, while enabling British and French forces to fall back in good order and in valiant rear guard actions. The one thing that the Schlieffen could not afford was any departure from the timetable. The German Army had to defeat the British and French rapidly, to free up the troops desperately needed to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Germany could not afford a war on two fronts or a lengthy war.
The British Expeditionary Force was small but its troops were well trained with a mixture of the small regular standing Army and the Territorial volunteers, their numbers swelling with new volunteers. Morale was good and the Quick Firing field artillery and the well drilled riflemen were impressive. To these strong points was added the ability of junior commanders to think for themselves when communications with Staff were disrupted by the speed of movement. The result was that the Germans often thought they were facing the full BEF rather than individual units, well-led by junior commanders and where the rate of fire by well drilled riflemen often gave the impression of machine guns. BEF troops not only fell back in good order to reconnect with neighbouring units, but they did so fiercely, giving a good account of themselves, when the Germans had expected to start a chaotic route.
French units were also putting up a stiff resistance and maintaining their structure. However, this might have come to nothing had the senior commanders not managed to communicate effectively. Much of this communications was down to the services of a relatively elderly British Second Lieutenant who was assigned to act as liaison between Haig, French and their French opposite numbers. This is one key fact that has received little recognition. It is very easy to overlook the fact that British and French soldiers had no prior experience, with the experience of the Crimean War being the one, and long forgotten, exception, of fighting alongside each other. Rather, there had been centuries of enmity. Not only was there a long history of fighting each other, there were cultural differences, different attitudes to how land forces should operate, and two very different languages. This potentially provided every opportunity for disaster. That the British and French commanders worked so effectively together was a major achievement for all concerned.
The BEF commanders were cautious and had been considering a further fighting withdrawal to the south to re-equip, draw breath and then decide how to fight on. The French set great store in elan and the war of movement. Against all the odds they worked together and appreciated the German weakness. Marshal Joffre with formidable military diplomacy persuaded Field Marshal Sir John French to join with the French armies in an attack back across the Marne. The exhausted British rallied and filled the gap between two French forces in the Battle of the Marne in what was to be a stunning victory which to many seemed a miracle. They had halted and thrown back the German advance, but lacked the capacity to move forward fast enough to turn the victory of the Marne into a significant defeat of the German Armies. This allowed the Germans to stop beyond the River Aisne, reinforce and dig in. The result was that the British had to make a frontal attack across open country and feel the full impact of modern defensive firepower that they had used so successfully to blunt the initial German invasion of Belgium and northern France.
Unable to continue driving the Germans back, the bloodied and battered BEF was ordered by Sir John French to dig in. This marked the end of the war of movement and the beginning of the long years of bitter trench warfare. Once both forces had stopped and begun to dig defensive positions, the new war was one of stronger defences and new ways of attacking the enemy trenches, giving birth to a bloody twin approach of mining and counter mining below ground and a horribly costly series of attacks Over The Top across the mud and barbed wire of No Man’s Land.
So much has been written and lamented about the trench war, and so little about the BEF’s fighting withdrawal and courageous fight back to the Aisne, that it is very easy to miss the huge contribution made to eventual victory by the rearguard actions at Mons, and Le Cateau and the fightback to the Aisne. Those actions may have ended in bitter trench war with its terrible price, but they also ensured that German could not win and would eventually be forced to surrender. They were perhaps a delayed victory, but they were also a defeat of German war aims because the German invaders could not afford to fail to win a quick Western Front victory. The best they could then hope for was a delayed defeat.
All of this is ably set out by a video production team of historians and battle field guides, with colour added by re-enactment enthusiasts. The maps are clear and instructive, the presentation is enthusiastic and assured, with the interaction between the team of specialists keeping the pace going at the correct rate. There is also the important assistance that comes from former soldiers with an eye for the terrain which shapes the progress and outcome of land battles. Another splendid DVD from BHTV